Set in the vibrant Iranian community of suburban Richmond Hill, Tehranto is a sweet rom-com written and directed by Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Faran Moradi. In the film, Sharon (Mo Zeighami) and Badi (Sammy Azero) fall in love despite differences in their upbringings. Tehranto also tackles themes and topics of “double consciousness,” Iranian diasporic culture, and the challenges of pursuing the arts.
Tehranto takes inspiration from aspects of Moradi’s own life and community. A son of Baháʼí refugees who fled Iran in 1989, Moradi was born and raised in Canada. He discovered his love of filmmaking as a child while watching a making-of featurette on a special edition VHS of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. The discovery blew his mind. He described thinking, "Oh my goodness, this is like a thing. People make these. It's a job!"
He began to dabble in writing and editing his own films at school, eventually going to Sheridan College to study filmmaking. “From there, I got some work as an assistant editor while doing my own indie projects, largely self-funded or crowdfunded, also doing corporate stuff on the side. Eventually, all three of those worlds converged in making Tehranto,” he said.
Over his Zoom interview with The Asian Cut before the 11th annual Canadian Screen Awards (CSA), Moradi discussed making his first feature film, his exciting CSA nomination, and what’s next.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TAC: I really enjoyed Tehranto. I also just love the name, “Tehranto.” Such a clever pun. Of course, it's also filmed in Richmond Hill, where I'm from. I'm guessing you are, as well?
FM: I'm actually not, funny enough, but there's a very large Iranian crowd there. I grew up mostly in small towns, so any time our family was going even remotely close to Toronto, we would pass through either Richmond Hill or North York because that's where all the Iranian stores are. We'd stock up on our groceries, and then we would go back to our small town.
What details can you share about writing the film?
I realized that a lot of Iranians here don't actually watch Iranian cinema that is showcased in TIFF or in Sundance. I asked why — I was kind of confused — but they were like, "Well, our lives are already pretty difficult. We don't want to spend two hours watching a depressing film," which I think is fair.
I thought that, our people, we need a bit of a win. We need something that reflects the warmer side of our culture, the love, the happiness, the music, the joy, and the food. Those are the things that really stand out to me, especially growing up. While I know that my existence came as a result of hardship, I also have many fond memories of family gatherings where we would just get together, play music, eat food. We would dance, we would laugh. I wanted to see that reflected on the screen.
Initially, the idea was, "Why don't I tell a rom-com that takes place in modern day Iran, but an alternate version of modern day Iran as though the revolution had never happened?" A friend of mine was like, "You're overcomplicating [things]. Richmond Hill and North York have a massive Iranian population. Instead of trying to make Richmond Hill look like an alternate reality of Iran, why don't you just set it there?"
I gave it some thought, and I was like, "Yeah, you know what? It's a good opportunity to show these aspects of our community through the diasporic community, which also hasn't had very much representation on screen.”
What has the reception to your film been like, especially in Richmond Hill and in the Iranian community?
It’s been pretty amazing to hear people's responses about the film because they've been largely positive. In fact, I don't think I've heard a single complaint from an Iranian who's seen the movie with the exception of things like, "I just have a question. Why is this one drape blue?" It's very specific things like that.
When we did our premiere, we did it in North York, and the audience reaction was incredible. We had a sold out show, and everybody was so welcoming and so happy to see the film. Even when we showed the film in Newport Beach at the film festival, there was a large Iranian population there. The Q&A lasted about an hour after the film ended, which I've never seen before, and it was largely because all these Iranians were engaged in the film. They'd be answering each other's questions and talking also about the current situation in Iran with the protests that are happening. It encouraged a lot more conversation within the community, which I think is great.
[In March], I was in the UK for a show called A Few Saturdays with Sina. It's like the only Iranian late night talk show. Think of Stephen Colbert's late night show, but for Iranian audiences. After it aired, my inbox on Instagram was filled with Iranians in Iran who had finally had a chance to see glimpses of the film, and they were very moved. A lot of these are people who can't make films in Iran. A lot of them were like, "I hope I can make my films." It's great to see that representation because I think it inspires people.
There is a discussion between the characters in your film where you have someone who's a little more tied to their home country and feels more connected and also guilty about what's going on there. And then the person who's more, let's say, Westernized, who doesn't really want to talk about it as much. Is that like a common debate in the Iranian community?
Yes and no. I don't think it's an open debate between two sides. Showing these two sides in the film was more an allegorical representation of the two sides of individuals. I find anyone who is from any kind of community other than the one that they're living in is going to have some kind of conflict there. [W.E.B.] Du Bois calls it double consciousness.
It's this idea that you have identities from both of these communities, but you also don't identify with both communities. You're trying to reconcile between these two sides of who you are.
And so, that scene largely plays out the two sides of who I am or the two sides of a lot of Iranian people. I think that it's similar to a lot of other immigrants who might be watching the film that suffer from double consciousness. They're like, "On the one hand, I need to try to be more Canadian, whatever that means. On the other hand, I also want to honour my heritage."
Going back to your position as a filmmaker in Canada — you were nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for your editing work. How do you feel about this recognition?
It's pretty exciting, especially because initially, when we were crewing up the film, I wasn't going to cut it. My day job at the time was as an editor, but we were making a micro budget film and we realized we need to save some money where we can, so I ended up editing it.
But it's really cool to see, especially because a lot of the editors who taught me how to edit during my time at Sinking Ship are also nominated for CSAs the same year in different categories. Like Courtney Goldman, Nathan Martinak, Jane MacRae — they're all also nominated this year. Tons of other editors who've either taught me or given notes on the film when I sent rough cuts to gauge their opinions, they've been nominated in previous years, so it's nice to be joining that group of people.
The other editors in the category that I'm in are all editors that I've always been like, "Whoa, these are like Canada's best editors." That's really cool to see, and it's very humbling to be a part of that crew. And I'm very excited for Keenan [Lynch] because Keenan's work is incredible. Keenan was our cinematographer. He was nominated for a Best Cinematography Award. Really excited for him, excited to see how it goes, but either way, he's going to continue to do great things, whether he wins or not. In my books, he's one of Canada's best cinematographers.
Do you have any thoughts about the Canadian film industry currently, especially in regards to filmmakers of colour?
I think that the movement towards empowering groups that have been largely disenfranchised is a positive movement, and I think it's moving in the right direction. I think the industry is still trying to figure out what that means.
Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is you get a producer who's like, "We want to hire the same directors who directed last [year's films] or that directed these episodes." They end up filling up half or two-thirds of their roster with the same people who are part of largely overrepresented groups. Then you have all these other marginalized communities competing for the same one or two seats at the table instead of seats being offered to different individuals. But I think that it will largely work itself out, and I am very hopeful for the way that things are headed.
The other thing that I will say, and I think that this is the bigger issue, is that production companies, in their pursuit to try to have positive PR around having more representation from these underrepresented groups, are typically hiring them in lower rung jobs. Instead of filling the key creative roles with BIPOC creatives, for example, or with LGBTQ creatives, what they're doing is they're hiring them as the second or third down on the rung, and then they just kind of fill all the key creatives with the same group of people.
Some exceptions to that are obviously that directors and writers are getting better representation now, but if you look at cinematographers, editors, production designers, music composers — these groups are still largely underrepresented in those areas.
Especially in Toronto where more than 50% of the community here are BIPOC, I think that you need to have a crew that is representative of that. So, for example, more than 50% of the population here is BIPOC, then more than 50% of your key creatives have to be BIPOC. Or if 52% of the community here in Toronto are women, 52% of your crew, including key creatives, need to be women. It needs to be representative of the actual reality around us.
Please tell us a bit more about your upcoming projects.
I'm in development right now on two features and a TV show actually. The TV show is a crime dramedy. It's called Tehranto Taj. Taj means crown, but it also means royal. We’re also re-borrowing the name of “Tehranto” because that's what we call [ourselves within] the Toronto Iranian community. I can't take credit for that [pun]. Tehranto Taj is an Iranian crime dramedy about this lawyer who inherits the Iranian mob from her estranged father on his death. She had no idea that he was part of this, so all of a sudden she is now in charge of the mob.
I'm also working on a grounded sci-fi with an American producer, and that one is called Across the Waves. It's about a man who gets lost at sea, and the only tool he has available to him to try to find his way home is a ham radio that's connected to the International Space Station. Every couple hours, the Space Station flies around the world, and he has an hour or two to try to communicate with it to figure out where he is and how to get home.
The last project I'm working on is a dramatic feature film called Cry Wolf, which is about an Iranian father and son who've both lost one of their children. The whole film tackles themes related to teen suicide, how miscarriage can often affect the fathers in a family, and also the destructive nature of stoicism in father-son relationships.